Thanksgiving, Italian-American Style

November 24, 2015

It’s November. It is cold. And we are hungry! Time to celebrate with La Famiglia for Thanksgiving.

Yes, all Americans expect Turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, a bounty of vegetables along with an abundance of alcoholic beverages and too many pies. It all started with the Pilgrims, the first settlers from Europe here in the United States. The story is that the Native Americans helped the newcomers to survive. All celebrated with a wonderful meal.

Family in Canada

None of us know what actually happened. One thing we do know is there probably weren’t any Italians there at that first big meal. But there are now.

When I was young everyone I knew was Italian. Everyone celebrated Thanksgiving—but we added a definite Italian flair.

  • We had 2 dozen or so people coming for the meal. We put 3 leaves into the dining room table and still set up folding tables at the end of it. It was so crowded that kids often had to sit at the end of the table on the radiator so we had enough chairs.
  • There was no such thing as a “Kids’ table.”  Children are the center of life for Italian-Americans—and they were right next to their parents for meals. Yes, they can be noisy. Who can hear them over the adults anyway? Yes you may need 3 or 4 high chairs at the dining table. Well, your Nonna may need a booster too—They are typically short people from southern Italy.
  • Of course we had Turkey and all the trimmings. Sometimes we had two turkeys. But, well, we’re Italian. We are proud of our food. We cannot imagine a big meal without pasta.
  • Pie, pumpkin pie. Sure, we had pumpkin pie, and apple pie, and lemon pie and 8 different kinds of cookies, gelato, caffe’ after the meal only—and it was caffe’ corretto (spiked with alcohol).
  • Meals could take 3 or 4 hours. Many bottles of vino were consumed. And we used the best dishes—the china, the crystal wine glasses and the good silver. All the girls had to wash and dry it all by hand after each meal (except that one cousin who managed to get out of it every year—you know who you are!).

How did we fit all this on the table, or, better yet, in our stomachs?  Time is the answer.  First we start with a primo piatto—the 1st plate. We served Italian Wedding Soup. This is a homemade Chicken soup, with tiny pastina, or acini di pepe, tiny pasta dots. Also added to the Zuppa (soup) was spinach and egg drops combined with Parmesan cheese.  Some people added small meatballs to it.  We did not.

Second course was a combination of the Turkey meal and the Italian pasta meal.  We served Lasagna, or Gnocchi, or Ravioli, or Giant Stuffed Shells or Canneloni. No simple spaghetti on Thanksgiving! We served a beautiful insalata (fresh salad) with tomatoes, lettuce, whatever fresh vegetables we could add and salad dressing of Olive Oil and Vinegar.

After about an hour on that course and a good deal of wine and water, we cleared the plates and brought out the Dolci (desserts). Mamma made caffe’ and alcohol was set on the table to add to it. We would take two or 3 portions of dessert and Ice Cream too!

Now we had to sit and attempt to digest it all. Some people staggered over to sofas. Others just sat at the table for hours, drinking and talking and head-bobbing. We didn’t even try to wash the dishes until much later. We would have broken dishes in our food coma.

Family in Canada

Things have changed a bit now.  When my mother was alive, she made all of that food (except desserts)and worked full time.  She was amazing.  Now that she is gone, it takes nearly all of her 6 children to complete the meal.

  • I make the soup—I inherited a giant, witches brew pot to use for making ragu’ or the soup. It takes hours and is a messy endeavor.  But my father loves it so I make it.
  • Joseph or Michael make the sauce, the red, meat sauce my mother always made.  If John is in town he helps too.
  • Jim will make sausage and peppers in sauce plus sautéed vegetables.
  • We each have specialties we make of the pasta. But, honestly, Joe usually makes it.
  • Joe also hosts us usually and makes the turkey and dressing too.
  • Papa’ makes a green bean casserole.  He also makes cookies.  He wants to help.
  • Patrice has become very good at making Italian cookies.  She needs to teach the kids how to do it.
  • The grandkids buy fancy pies and bring Ice Cream and alcohol.
  • We have a Kids’ table.
  • We now use disposable plates.  They are not pretty but we women can enjoy the dolci with everyone else.
  • The biggest difference is that Mom is gone.  She was the center of our lives. She lived to entertain.  Feeding us was her main way of saying “I love you.” And she had it down to a science.
  • Dad always says a prayer of Thanksgiving before the meal.  He thanks God that all his children and grandchildren are here with him. He prays for all who have gone on before him.  And he cries when he mentions Mom.  Then we toast her. And we eat her food, prepared in her memory with love by her children and her husband.  That is also how we say “I love you.”

This year remember to be especially thankful to all who have touched your lives.  And, perhaps, a little lasagna would spice up your Turkey Dinner.

Ciao for now!

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